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Council rejects $100,000 library gift

Library director warns of extra costs, staffing problems

One would think a $100,000 gift to the libraries would be graciously accepted -- but not if it would require a $300,000 additional expenditure of city funds.

In Palo Alto, where the future of the libraries has become an emotionally charged issue, a recent gift from the Friends of the Palo Alto Library brought more consternation than congeniality.

The City Council voted 5-4 Monday night to reject a $100,000 donation from the organization, which aggressively defends the libraries and their branches. The Friends hoped the city would use the funds to purchase a modular (temporary) building to maintain public space in the city's Downtown Library while the Children's Library temporarily closes for renovation next year.

The city plans to move some technical staff to the downtown branch during the construction, allowing some Children's Library programs and collection to move into the larger Main Library building.

But Library Director Paula Simpson, who had been at odds with the Friends over a plan to shrink the number of libraries in town, thinks the donation "makes no financial sense."

The donation is "a costly endeavor that doesn't solve the longstanding problem of inadequate library facilities," Simpson said in a memo to the council.

The total cost of purchasing and operating a modular building would exceed $400,000, she said.

She said city librarians are already overworked. To have staff oversee a new building during the Children's Library construction "eliminates the possibility of relief, albeit temporary, for a staff that is stretched unacceptably thin."

Elaine Meyer, president of the University South Neighborhood Association, expressed disappointment at the council's action.

"Perhaps citizens' views come after that of the staff and the council," she said. Meyer worried the city would eventually close the Downtown Library because fewer people would use it.

In her memo, Simpson warned "about the growing demands of the Downtown Branch interest group" and noted "the Main Library serves almost four times the number of people who use the Downtown Branch."

Underlying the discussion was last year's controversial recommendation from Simpson and City Manager Frank Benest to close the Downtown and College Terrace branches to improve service at the larger, more popular branches. The Friends of the Palo Alto Library lobbied against that plan, which the council ultimately rejected.

The Library Advisory Commission is surveying residents this fall to gather input about the future of the city's library service, and plans to return to the council in March with recommendations.

The city manager's office rejected the Friends' gift earlier this year but the organization appealed that decision to the council.

Technically, the council voted against placing the issue on a future meeting's agenda. Councilwomen LaDoris Cordell, Hillary Freeman, and Yoriko Kishimoto urged their colleagues to reconsider.

"We should remove the emotional baggage and discuss the issue rationally," Kishimoto said. Freeman underlined the need for the council to take a leadership role and build relationships between differing library organizations.

Councilman Jack Morton, who said he was "conflicted" and "torn," also voted in favor of reconsideration. Both Kishimoto and Morton are running for re-election this fall.

— Suman Mudamula and Bill D'Agostino

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